Thursday, 7 May 2015

The blood of Louis XVI: Found....and lost?

The Blood of Louis XVI?
In 2010 there was excitement in the press when 
a decorative gourd said to contain the blood of Louis XVI was submitted for analysis  to a Spanish team of forensic biologists team under Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Barcelona Institut de biologia Evolutiv.  The gourd, of a sort typically hulked out as a vessel contain gunpowder, bore the inscription, "Maximilien Bourdaloue on January 21st dipped his handkerchief in the blood of the king after his beheading".There was  no cloth inside, but researchers were able to scrape dried blood from the interior.   Early results of DNA testing were promising.  The sample was from a male and there were strong genetic indications of an individual with blue eyes.  The Y-chromosome was identified as being from a haplogroup -  a set of inherited genetic variations - so rare among modern Eurasians that it was concluded that the sample must indeed belong to a royal line.

The team now needed comparative data.  One possibility was the heart of Louis XVII in St.Denis which had been authenticated by DNA analysis  as long ago as 1999. Unfortunately this research had relied on mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the female parent (the heart had been matched with genetic material from Marie-Antoinette's hair); there was no data on the nuclear DNA needed to verify the paternal line.

Happily, there remained another  possibility - the  mummified head of Henri IV, which had been opportunely rediscovered amid much publicity just two years earlier in 2008. Philippe Charlier, the charismatic TV forensic archaeologist, who had led the work on Henri IV, promised his collaboration. Up until then, identification of the head had rested mostly on carbon dating and x-ray comparison to portraits.  Only a tiny amount of genetic material could be isolated.  Nonetheless, despite the scarcity of markers, five out of six DNA sequences (alleles) matched those identified in the blood from the gourd. These were all rare. Professor Lalueza-Fox felt able to conclude confidently that it was "250 times more probable" that the two samples were paternally related than not.

So far, so good.   Dr Charlier - who has access to many illustrious body parts -  even promised further corroboration in the form of genetic material from the leg of Louis's mother (or at least a close female relative) which might prove a match for any mitochondrial DNA which was isolated.

The reports:  
1. Lalueza-Fox, Carles et al. "Genetic analysis of the presumptive blood from Louis XVI, king of France" Forensic Science International. Published online 12 October 2010. (abstract)

2. Charlier, Philippe et al., Genetic comparison of the head of Henri IV and the presumptive blood from Louis XVI (both Kings of France), Forensic Science International. Published online 30 November 2012. (abstract)

Here is a good summary:
"Mummified head and bloody old gourd used to identify Louis XVI DNA" Wired, post of 3rd January 2013.

Not the blood of Louis XVI?

Sadly it was not long before the scientists began to disagree....

The first dissenting voice was Professor Jean-Jacques Cassiman from Louvain University,  who in October 2013 published a new study of the head.  Professor Cassiman, took a new approach by examining  DNA of from three living Bourbons - prince Axel of Bourbon-Parma, prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma and prince João Henrique of Orleans-Braganza - all of whom have Louis XIII as a common ancestor. They checked out -  all shared a rare haplogroup indicating their illustrious descent from the Capetian kings of France.  However, the DNA from the head, and from the blood in the gourd, matched not at all.  It was simply impossible, declared Professor Cassiman,  that these could represent the remains of  Henri IV or Louis XVI.

A huge row ensued in which several authors of the original article on Henri IV, published in the BMJ, attempted to retract their work;  poor Philippe Charlier had much at stake - a book; an ambitious facial reconstruction (see left), to say nothing of the potential reinterment of the king's head at St. Denis by President Sarkozy

[But at least someone is making good use of Professor Cassiman's data;  the iGENEA "Bourbon DNA project" website now offers the opportunity to compare your DNA with that of the three living Bourbons, asking temptingly,   "Are you descended from the kings of France and Spain?" See: (Sadly, I can safely answer no: my ancestors were all either Anglo-Saxon or Irish peasants!)]  

In April 2014 the final blow was struck when the original Barcelona team under Carles Lalueza-Fox, which included Philippe Charlier himself,  published a complete genetic profile of the blood from the gourd.  Professor Lalueza-Fox was honest enough to retract his earlier findings;  he did not have the tall Louis, with bulging blue eyes and Saxon mother at all:  this was in all probability  a short, brown-eyed individual of Italian descent. 

According to an AFP bulletin, Charlier now admits that the link previously found between the individuals represented by the head and the blood in the gourd "may have been coincidental".  But he still insists that the new report  "does not place into doubt the authenticity of the head of Henri IV,".  As to Louis XVI, the study concludes, "It could still be possible, although implausible, that the gourd's blood could be that of the French king,"  Ouch!

The reports
1.  Cassiman, Jean-Jacques et al.
"Genetic genealogy reveals true Y haplogroup of House of Bourbon contradicting recent identification of the presumed remains of two French Kings" European Journal of Human Genetics (2014) 22, 681–687.  Published online 9 October 2013.

2. Lalueza-Fox,  Carles et al, "Genomic analysis of the blood attributed to Louis XVI (1754–1793), king of France" Scientific Reports 4, no. 4666, 24 April 2014

 On the state of the controversy at the beginning of 2014:
"Polémiques sur le crâne supposé d’Henri IV" Le Monde,  20 January 2014

What Philippe Charlier had to say for himself in April 2014:
"Blood on cloth didn't belong to King Louis XVI",  The Local/AFP

It is all very disappointing.  But there are still some interesting questions raised. 

Would it actually have been possible to collect the blood of Louis XVI?

Surprisingly enough, the answer to  this one is "yes". Blood ran into a trough under the guillotine and at Louis's execution guards, and even members of the crowd, were allowed access. The blood did indeed become a sort of Revolutionary talisman.

The following is from Antoine De Baecque, Glory and Terror: seven deaths under the French Revolution (2002) p.106-7:

"The theme of blood as a good-luck charm ... is distinctly present in narratives of the execution.  "Louis's head has fallen; it has been shown to the people," comments La Révolution de 92 in its January 22 edition.  "Right away volunteers stained their lances, others their handkerchiefs, and then their hands, in the blood of Louis XVI."  The Annales de la République  française returns three times to this flowing blood and its supposed power, each time giving new details, more and more precise and explicit.  First on January 22: "The execution over, the executioner presented the head to the people.  A number of people hurried to get hold of his hair, others drenched paper and even their handkerchiefs in his blood".  Then, on January 25:  "It is not only his hair that people have gotten hold of and sold, for they had the same eagerness to get pieces of his clothing.  We noticed a young foreigner, well-dressed, who gave fifteen pounds to soak a white handkerchief in the traces of blood.  Another seemed to attach a great importance to obtaining some hair, for which he paid a louis.  Many drenched their swords or their lances in the blood".  Finally, on January 28:  "The executioner, surprised at the eagerness of so many to drench their sword or their lance in Louis's blood, cried out:"Wait a minute, I'll give you a tub in which you can soak them more easily" .

 Antoine De Baecque quotes  from Louis Marie Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris no.185 (January 19-26, 1793):
"They say that the citizens drenched their handkerchiefs in the blood.  That is true.  And many volunteers hurried to drench the iron of their lances, the bayonet of their rifles or the blade of their swords in the despot's blood.  The police were not the last.  Many officers of the battalion from Marseille and others saturated the envelopes of letters they carried on the top of their swords with this impure blood, saying: "Here is the blood of a tyrant".  One citizen climbed up to the guillotine itself, and plunged his whole bare arm into Capet's blood, which had collected there in abundance; he filled his hand with clots of its, and three times showered the crowd of attendants who pressed up to the foot of the scaffold to receive, each one, a drop on their forehead...."

Execution of Louis - illustration from Révolutions de Paris no.185
What about the gourd?

There are dozens of websites reporting the scientific findings, but hardly anything sensible has been written about the gourd, which is, to say the least, a curious relic.  It has been owned by the same family from Bologna for more than a hundred years,  and is described in a letter addressed to the director of the Musée Carnavalet, dated January 31st, 1900. Otherwise there is no provenance, except for the inscriptions on the object itself.

The crucial one reads "Finished today, 18th of September 1793, Jean Roux, Parisian citizen, author." The phraseology seems a bit awkward, but presumably "Jean Roux" was the artist who did the decoration.

Without this information, no-one would suppose that the gourd originated in Paris.

 It is true that "calabash" or "bottle gourds" - this one belongs to the species Cucurbita moschata  - were frequently used for storage, particularly of gunpowder. But they are tropical or semi-tropical plants, not products of the market gardens of Paris.  Examples of highly decorated ones tend to come from places like North Africa or Cyprus; there are no Parisian examples that I can find on auction sites, and certainly no trace of a "Jean Roux".  Admittedly Roux was a common name - and perhaps he was only an amateur.  On the other hand,  pyrography was a specialised technique and the decoration is very accomplished.

The iconography is muddled and does not really suggest the work of a denizen of Paris in the Year II. There are groups of portraits of "prominent lead actors during the French Revolution", which include not only Robespierre, Danton and Marat but also Dr.Guillotin and Louis-Sébastien Mercier.  Also featured  are Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille,  Jacques de Flesselles and Joseph Foullon, all of whom were royalists lynched on the 14th July.   Louis XVI himself appears as "King of the French", and there are depictions of  Marie-Antoinette  and Jacques Necker!  All the busts feature generic bewigged eighteenth-century gentlemen rather than ardent revolutionaries.

Finally there is the enigma of the inscriptions themselves and the story they tell.  Here they are in putative order: 

1.Maximilien Bourdaloue le 21 de Janvier de cette année imbiba son mouchoir dans le sang de Louis XVI après sa Decollation
"Maximilien Bourdaloue on January 21st dipped his handkerchief in the blood of the king after his beheading"

2.Tout caillé le mis dans cette courge et me la ceda contre deux assignats de dix Francs. T. Pes c.f. F. Aegnauld.
"Once congealed, he put it in this gourd and gave it to me for two banknotes of ten francs. T. Pes c.f. L. er F. Aegnauld"

3.Je me chargea des l’ouvrager ainsi pour en faire cadeau a’ l’Aigle qui viendra m’apporter ses Cinq Cent Francs  "I took it upon myself to have it decorated so I could make a present of it to the Eagle ("l'Aigle") who will bring me his Five Hundred Francs"

This reads much more like some sort of accompanying note than an inscription, yet from the photos the text seems of a piece with the surrounding decoration.  If someone was hoping to sell the piece for a profit, why mention the money on the object itself?  And who is the "Eagle"?  If it is Napoleon, as has been suggested, the dates are wrong; in September 1793 Napoleon was still an obscure artillery captain.  None of the names check out, at least not on the internet.  "Aegnault" (as opposed to "Regnault") doesn't seem a real French name at all, and what do the abbreviations T. Pes c. f. L er (?et) F. mean?  Someone must have some theories!

Details and pictures of the gourd:
Post on "History Blog"

Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez. "Salon of Jean Roux and his 1793 Louis XVI gourd of the French Revolution",  E-Museum of Pyrographic Art, post of 13 May 2011

At a certain point estimates of the worth of the relic rocketed to between 500,000 and a whopping two million Euros..... I bet the Italian owners wish they had sold it when the going was good......
Ironically enough on 3rd April 2013 Drouot auctioned a piece of cloth stained with the blood of Louis, without any DNA authentication (though admitted with a note from a real person, Colonel (Joseph Antoine René ) Joubert.  It fetched nearly 19,000€ -  relatively modest but still worth having.
See the sale catalogue,  (Lot 280)

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